Category Archives: Music criticism

Salt Bay Season Ends on a High Note

Salt Bay Chamberfesst
Darrows Barn, Round Top Center, Damariscotta
Aug. 19, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

The Salt Bay Chamberfest ended its 22nd season on a high note Friday night, with three outstanding performances by the Brentano String Quartet, with soloists Thomas Sauer, piano, and Romie de Guise-Langlois, clarinet. As usual for the last several seasons, Darrows Barn, at Damariscotta’s Round Top Center, was filled to overflowing.

It is rare in Maine to be able to compare performances of the same work by different artists during the same season, but such was the case with the String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”) by Leoš Janáček. The Portland String Quartet showcased the work in April (see review “Intimate Letters”) It was second on Friday night’s program by the Brentano Quartet.

The PSQ version tended to emphasize its new cellist in the role of the composer in this love affair with a married woman 38 younger than he. The Brentano had a more balanced approach, in which lover and beloved were treated with equal passion.

Written in the last year of Janáček’s life (1928), when he was 74, the quartet should nevertheless be X-rated. It depicts every aspect of the long-lasting liaison, using letter keys, numerology and speech patterns to tie incidents to specific times and places and leit-motifs to code specific actions.The official line is that the affair was platonic, but the music says otherwise.

Maybe it was just the second live hearing of the work, but I found the Brentano’s version somewhat more compelling, in an earthy rather than intellectual way.

Speaking of earthy, the opening work on the program, commissioned in 2016 by the Brentano from Israeli composer Shulamit Ran (b. 1949) was named “Stream” . The three movements, for string quartet and clarinet, can depict a stream becoming a river, like Smetana’s “Moldau,” or a stream of consciousness progressing from fragmentary images to firm resolution.

Whatever the chosen program, the quartet is a vehicle for overwhelmingly fluid virtuosity on the clarinet, matched by and complementing its partnership with the strings. Heard live, it was marvelous.

The evening ended with more virtuosity than seems possible for a 15-year-old composer: the Mendelssohn Piano Quartet in B minor, Opus 3. It doesn’t yield much, if at all, to the later piano concertos, in terms of solid construction, inventiveness and pure excitement.

The young composer seems to have just discovered the possibilities of triplets (from Scarlatti?) and purely revels in them. The whole quartet is a sort of tarantella, While the members of the Brentano, absent the second violin, were able to hold it together as a quartet for the first three movements, they had to throw up their hands in the final Allegro vivace, and yield the stage to Sauer, who turned in an astounding performance with seeming nonchalance. It was remarkable for a pianist at the height of his powers. For a teenager it must have seemed the work of the devil.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

VentiCordi: Food for Thought

VentiCordi
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
Aug. 17, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

VentiCordi (Winds and Strings), is one of Maine’s hidden treasures. Founded by violinist Dean Stein and oboist Kathleen McNerney seven years ago, it is devoted to presenting the repertoire of chamber music written for winds and string instruments. In the process it uncovers a few masterpieces, some unknown works and some very strange ones. All are extremely well played by musicians who love them, and all are fascinating.

At the penultimate concert of the season —the last is tonight at South Congregational Church in Kennebunkport—they were joined by Bridget Convey, piano, Laura Jordan, percussion, and Gary Gorczyca, clarinet, in a selection of works that were primarily contemporary but always accessible. The opening piece, “Tangling Shadows” by Nathan Daughtrey, based on a poem by Pablo Neruda, was tonal, light and romantic. The duo of oboe, MacNerney, and vibraphone, Jordan, was a marriage made in heaven.

Lou Harrison (1917-2003) was an eccentric composer who studied with the equally iconoclastic Henry Cowell. His “Varied Trio,” for Violin, Piano and Percussion, is an eclectic romp that can be enjoyed by anyone. Its percussion effects, which include pitched rice bowls filled with water (not Sake), plucking on the piano strings and hypnotic drum patterns, were especially effective, and his “Rondeau in Honor of Fragonard” also honored Ravel, whose “Tombeau de Couperin” it rivals.

Even more unexpected was the Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, Op. 157b, by Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) which has everything. The other day I disrespected the marimba as being incapable of tragedy. Its bass notes in the suite’s Divertissement proved me wrong, being lugubrious in the extreme, followed by a joyous fete in Jeu, and a totally jazzy Introduction and Final.

After intermission, the “Schilflieder” (Reed Songs) for oboe, viola and piano, of August Klughardt (1847-1902) sounded like Brahms after too many beers—sentimental, showing off gloriously obvious harmonies, and a florid piano accompaniment full of sturm und drang, giving Convey a real workout. It is easy to see why Klughardt was extremely popular in the last days of German Romanticism.

The composer, Stephen Michael Gryc, introduced his “Dream Vegetables” for voice, clarinet, violin and marimba, based on poems by Maggie Anderson, which depict not dreams OF vegetables, but BY vegetables, including exposure, falling, nightmare, insomnia, recurring and flying.

The poems are whimsical, and so are the sometimes minimalist settings, which nevertheless capture dream states unerringly. The bass marimba makes its appearance again in underground sequences. They were dramatically read by McNerney. In case you were wondering, it is the radishes who have insomnia, pacing up and down in their red and white pajamas.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Salt Bay Chamberfest: Then and Now

Salt Bay Chamberfest
Darrows Barn, Round Top Center, Damariscotta
Aug. 12, 2016

“If you build it, they will come.” Twenty two years ago, when I first reviewed a concert at the Salt Bay Chamberfest, the founder. cellist Wilhelmina Smith, was happy to have Darrows Barn half filled. But word gets around. On Friday, in spite of a heat wave, it was standing room only, and that is now typical.

The secret is quite simple—-everyone is satisfied with the best. The festival offers the finest in classical and contemporary music, played by outstanding musicians who devote just as much attention, and affection, to new music as to the classics.

Imaginative programming doesn’t hurt either. On Friday, Haydn’s last quartet (Opus 103) was paired with the early Brahms Sextet for Strings in B-flat, Opus 18. In the middle was some quite fiendish new music by Marc Neikrug (b. 1946), Philip Glass, (b. 1937), Zosha Di Castri (b.1985) and Julia Wolfe (b. 1958). The audience loved it all.

I had visions of Haydn spending his last days playing his favorite tune, the Kaiser Hymn. Instead, he was occupied with a final string quartet, the form that he practically invented and passed on to Mozart and Beethoven. What Opus 103 lacked in cheerfulness it made up in invention. An unusual amount of chromaticism led to unexpected developments. Only two movements were completed, but they show that the old dog could still learn new tricks.

The composers mentioned above were each commissioned by violinist Jennifer Koh, a Chamberfest regular, as part of a project she calls “Shared Madness.” It was. I won’t describe each of these short works, but all explored some aspect of contemporary virtuosity, pushing the violin to extremes, but without resorting to ancillary devices such as drumming on the wood.

One bow-shredding piece came close to being impossible, a melody played on one string while a second produced a sort of growling wolf note. Another explored overtones in registers at the limit of human hearing. One hopes that Koh will soon have enough madness in her collection to produce a CD.

Before intermission came the premiere of a new work by Marc Neikrug, entitled “Ruminations,” commissioned by the Chamberfest. As lovingly rendered by a string trio of Jennifer Koh, violin, Hsin-Yun Huang, viola, and Wilhelmina Smith, cello, it is one of the few “modern” works that appeals to the senses on first hearing. Going by the title, it seems composed of random musical thoughts that eventual;lay coalesce, like clouds into a tornado or leaves into a tree (depending on your mood). The process is satisfying, musically and intellectually.

There was nothing unexpected about the Brahms Sextet, except perhaps for its genius. The young Brahms knows exactly where he’s going with every theme and its development, all of which seems ineveitable— once you hear it. One could see the musicians smiling as the drama unfolded, now in its predictably glorious way. One thing the youthful Brahms has over Mendelssohn at the same period in his life; he is not afraid of being obvious.

There’s more to come at Salt Bay, August 16 and Aug.19. The latter concert includes the (very) early Mendelssohn Piano Quartet in B Minor, Op. 3.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

A Preview and a Premiere by the DaPonte String Quartet

DaPonte String Quartet
Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens
Aug. 10, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Is the DaPonte String Quartet spreading itself too thin? In the 25 years of its notable residence in Maine, its mission has been to bring great music, live, to underserved areas of the state. In recent years, however, it has vastly increased its range and the number of venues in which it plays, including those whose acoustics leave something to be desired.

The concert I attended last night, at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, was the sixth in a series of seven throughout the state. Add to that a heavy teaching schedule for the quartet’s members and work on a new CD, and it is no wonder that the players seemed a little tired at times.

They began with the holy grail of counterpoint, Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” (BWV 1081). The first Contrapunctus showed the quartet’s characteristic passion, but the second and third succumbed to the academic chill inspired by the presence of greatness. It was a nice historical touch to include the last of the series, left unfinished at Bach’s death, but from a musical standpoint, a climax would have been more satisfying.

I had gone to the concert to hear the premiere of Rocco Havelaar’s String Quartet No. 3, composed in 2015. (Disclaimer: Havelaar is the former husband of Lydia Forbes, who alternates with Ferdinand Liva as first violin of the DaPonte.)

Since I had never heard the work before, it is impossible to critique the performance, but the balance seemed a little off at times, and more could have been made of the composer’s use of motifs to tie the work together.

The quartet is very serious, its opening movement reminding one of Bartok’s visions of nature at night—susurrations and nightingale song punctuated by distant lightening. At the beginning of the Rondo:Scherzo second movement, a dog started to bark. (It was the ringtone on someone’s cell phone.) I thought at first that Havelaar had decided to liven things up, adding to his musical references Chopin’s remark to a badly playing pupil: “Did I just hear a dog barking?”

Alas, it was not to be, and the quartet took the second movement from the top. The entire quartet is too long, but it did catch fire at moments, especially when a theme was presented over a driving ostinato, a la Phillip Glass.

The final adagio is a funeral march without march rhythm, expect for a related pattern from one of Beethoven’s works in that genre. More could have been done with that little motif, but instead, the piece dies away sadly. This is the usual cop-out, but I really would like to hear the piece again, to be able to better follow its developments, whose precision, Havelaar hopes, imitates that of Brahms.

The DaPonte was back to its usual form in the concluding work of the evening, the Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Opus 13, written when he was 19 and recovering from a depression brought on by the rejection of his first and only opera.

It is lovely music, melodic and Beethoven-esque (the DaPonte plays it on the new CD) with all the virtues and vices of youth. Its primary drawback, like the Havelaar quartet, is a dread of appearing obvious, to the extent that Mendelssohn could not think of a novel way to end it, and just quit, leaving the audience unsure whether or not to applaud, especially after all the false cadences the young composer had borrowed from the late Beethoven.

The fugues are miraculous for a 19-year-old, bringing the evening back to the first work on the program.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Gamper Festival Never Fails to Entertain

Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music
Studzinski Recital Hall, Bowdoin College
July 30, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Every time I go to the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music (July 29, 30, 31 at Bowdoin’s Studzinski Recital Hall) I wonder about the number of empty seats. Here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear the best of 20th and 21st Century music, played by some of the world’s finest musicians, and it’s absolutely free!

Is it because of a generalized dislike of contemporary music? Saying you don’t like “modern” music is like saying you don’t like cheese. With several thousand varieties to choose from, the opinion is fatuous at best.

And what about the kids? People are always advocating things, like Sunday School, for the betterment of children, which they don’t do themselves. And here is something that they might actually like. Grandchildren pester me to play Bartok because it goes against the rule of not banging on the piano.

Saturday night’s program, as usual, had something for everyone to love or hate. It gave new meaning to “contemporary,” since all the composers, except for Luke DuBois, (b. 1975), whose installation, “A Jupiter Portrait,” greeted early arrivals, are deceased.

“Jupiter” is a large, high-definition video with close-ups of musicians playing a work composed for the recording—a nice amuse bouche, creating a hushed museum-like atmosphere instead of the usual seating bustle.

The imagery theme carried through with “Les citations,” by Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013), and “From My Garden,” by Ursula Mamlok (1923-2016). Both are in the Impressionist tradition, while Mamlok also uses a 12-tone row for her pointillist scene, described by solo violist Jing Peng.

The Dutilleux was notable for its unusual combination of timbres— oboe, percussion, harpsichord and double bass.

It was followed by a clever homage to Bach, Steven Stucky’s (1949-2016) “Partita-Pastorale, after J.S.B,” most successful when the imitation was closest.

The mercurial Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) was represented by “Hymn No. 4.” I don’t know why it was entitled “Hymn,” except for the chimes, added to a heady combination of bassoon (lovely low notes), harp, cello, double bass, timpani and harpsichord, under the baton of Luke Rinderknecht. It is easy to see why Schnittke is one of the most popular contemporary composers, with over 50 CDs to his credit. The piece has an hypnotic drive and the unusual combination of instruments provides some wonderful effects.

The high point of the evening was the finale, the “Quintet for Clarinet and Strngs” of William Albright (1944-1998), played by Derek Bermel, clarinet, Renée
Jolles, violin, Janet Sung, violin, Phillip Ying, viola and David Ying, cello.

The Quintet is a long work, consisting of an introduction, a theme, and 12 variations on a long, intricate and baroque heme with seemingly no possibilities whatsoever. Albright then proceeds to surprise us, pleasantly, with variations that are sometimes musical in-jokes, sometimes moving, and sometimes spectacular, such as the Klezmer Fantasy that ends the piece. Bermel is a fantastic clarinet virtuoso and gave the fantasy his all.

The haunting “Night Music” variations are the equal of Bartok’s efforts at creating the same atmosphere.

I’m sure that tonight’s concert will be equally entertaining, moving, detestable and unfailingly interesting. Bring the kids.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

PORTopera Delivers a Landmark “Carmen”

PORTopera “Carmen”
Merrill Auditorium
July 27
by Christopher Hyde

Bizet’s “Carmen” can be summed up by a well-known pornographic postcard from the composer’s Paris, in which a beautiful young woman accepts a bouquet from a Romantic lover. A drapery or curtain conceals her lower half, which is receiving the intimate attentions of a well-endowed brute.

In PORTopera’s new production, premiered Wednesday night at Merrill Autditorium, artistic director Dona D. Vaughn has elevated the love-lust dichotomy into to a tragedy worthy of “Macbeth.”

She is ably abetted by a fine orchestra, conducted by Stephen Lord, a cast like that of the Metropolitan Opera, and a set, with its sometimes solid and sometimes broken adobe walls, that mirrors the tragedy. The setting and authentic costumes, from Franco’s Spain of the 1930’s, also make a substantial contribution to Vaughn’s characterizations.

To take just one example, the bullfighter Escamilio’s absurd suit of lights emphasizes his role as Carmen’s ticket out of the gypsy life. He is not an heroic figure but the handsome boy next door, strutting his bravado but totally unsure of himself. Carmen can wrap him around her little finger. unlike Don José, who even wins a knife-fight with the toreador. The role is played with appropriate nonchalance by bass-baritone Edward Parks

If there were ever a mezzo-soprano perfectly suited to sing Carmen, it is Israeli-born Maya Lahyani, who combines a voice to die for with acting ability, beauty and stage presence. She is one of the few Carmens I have seen who makes Don Jose’s and Escamillo’s infatuation entirely believable.

After setting the stage, the tragedy begins when Carmen, uncharacteristically, waits for Don José because he has gone to prison for her. She is trying to break out of the flirtatious, man-killing pattern she has set, but after seducing Don José to join the bandit troop, she begins to regret her decision. Still, she stays with him longer than any other man in her life, until she finds herself outgunned by the traditional world, in the person of Micaëla, allied with Don José’s mother.

Tenor Adam Diegel, as Don José, has just the right mixture of passion and conventionality as the deeply divided anti-hero.

Soprano Amanda Woodbury is spectacular as Micaëla, whose seeming timidity and religiosity disguise a will as strong as Carmen’s and more sure.

Like Macbeth, Carmen consults an oracle about her future, always a bad idea, and finds nothing but death, impossible in the full Tarot deck (I think), reflecting her own subconscious knowledge that she is losing her youth and beauty.

She refuses to give in, and takes up with Escamillo, either as a last fling or an anchor against old age. In the final act we see her and her delightful friends Mercédes, mezzo-soprano Sahoko Sata, and Frasquita, soprano Maeve Höglund, dressed in the 1930s version of Spanish ladies of fashion. Carmen’s wild hair is in a bun, and she is dressed in an outfit that seems sedate, at least for her.

In the final confrontation with Don José, she could easily have diverted his wrath, but decides once more to tempt fate, and defies him, while addressing her persona in the third person: “Carmen never gives in.” It is this hubris that precipitates the tragedy.

After the stabbing, Carmen’s body is surrounded by a squad of soldiers, all with their rifles pointed at her body, and incidentally, her murderer Don José. The scene returns us to the beginning of the opera, in which Carmen is flirting with the same soldiers.

In my rewrite, there’s a happy ending. Don José gets a suspended sentence for a crime of passion, (It’s Spain after all) marries Micaëla and lives happily ever after, his mother having recovered from her terminal illness due to joy at seeing her son again.

Seriously, this version of “Carmen,” the third in the history of PORTopera, will stand as a landmark. Every part of the world’s most popular opera is there, down to the last syllable, through four acts, two intermissions and a pause, but it is riveting throughout. Every role is almost perfectly sung and acted, and the crowd scenes with the children’s chorus set off the tragedy by their sheer exuberance. There are a few seats left for Friday’s performance, and this is an experience worth having, no matter how far up in the balcony one has to sit.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Bowdoin Festival’s Piazzolla Doesn’t Bite

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Wednesday Upbeat! concert
Studzinski Hall
July 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Throughout my career as a critic, I have advanced the idea that performance is all when it comes to classical music. Perhaps I should also have pointed out that it is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Arturo Michelangeli can make the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1 sound good, but even he might fail with a lesser work.

I attended the Wednesday Upbeat! concert at Studzinski Hall primarily to hear Astor Piazzolla’s “L’histoire du Tango,” written around 1980. It portrays the evolution of the tango from the bordellos of Buenos Aires through cafes and night clubs to the concert hall. It does exactly that but is more satisfying in an historical than a musical sense
.
The work was originally written for guitar and flute, but on Wednesday was transcribed for violin and marimba, played by Susie Park and Luke Rinderknecht respectively.

Maybe Piazzolla was getting old, or maybe he wanted his history sanitized for music students, but each tango in the set of four lacks the bite of his earlier work. A true Piazzolla tango is full of dark passion with a black hole of nihilism in its center, around which the dance revolves.

The history is, well, pretty, and never catches fire until it is almost over, with tributes to Bartok and Stravinsky.

Park and Rinderknecht played the transcription very well, but the violin cannot imitate the timbre of the flute, and a little bit of marimba goes a long way. The latter iinstrument is incapable of despair, in which the guitar is right at home.

The high point of the concert was its beginning– the Beethoven Sextet in E-flat Major, Opus 81b, which is not a sextet at all, but a concerto for two French horns, in the style of Mozart. It is indeed written for six instruments, but the strings, for the most part, accompany the horns, played with virtuosity by Stewart Rose and his student at the Festival, Jason Friedman. The two made an outstanding pair.

The final work on the program was the Schumann Piano Trio No. 3 in G Minor, Opus 110. also known as “no rests for the weary” or “the forsaken fermata.” The piece is so densely written, in a waterfall of notes, without a single empty space, that it soon became tiring, in spite of the best efforts of Nelson Lee, violin, Rosemary Elliott, cello and Elinor Freer, piano.

The piece is so driven in nature that it appears symptomatic of the mental illness that would soon claim its composer. It has redeeming features, however, such as echoes of the humorous but triumphant march of the Davidsbundler. It received a standing ovation from the near-capacity audience.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

A New Star in the Bowdoin Festival Heavens

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Festival Friday
Crooker Theater, Brunswick High School
July 15, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Gabriela Lena Frank, whose “Tres Homenajes, Compadrazgo,” was performed Friday night at the Festival Friday concert of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, may be our new Bartok.

The work in question, three tributes to the Latin American spirit of brotherly love, inspired by ethnic Peruvian music, is a masterpiece. While it stems from the ethnomusicology of the composer, the folk motifs and rhythms are the starting point for inspired music in a distinctive and universal classical style. It is what Astor Piazzolla did for the Argentine tango, but carried to an even higher level and capable of being appreciated across cultural divides.

Its rapid, driving rhythms and abrupt changes of pitch and volume are a challenge for any group, but the Ying Quartet, and pianist Tao Lin, conquered its awesome chasms like mountain goats (if you’ll pardon the analogy.).

The three movements depict the windswept northern plains of Peru, a desolate island in Lake Titicaca and T’inku, a ritual combat between village heroes, now symbolic but previously a matter of life and death. (Both victor and vanquished share in the good harvest resulting from the conflict.)

While the composer’s images may have been her inspiration, listeners are free to imagine what they will. There are no overt references or musical imagery. The slow second movement, to me, would make a fantastic score for Pablo Neruda’s great poem about Machu Picchu.

Frank is a composer in residence at this year’s festival. They are fortunate indeed to have her.

If I were not exclaiming over Frank’s work, I would have begun with Robin Scott, first violinist of the Ying Quartet, who deserves some kind of Iron Man award. He appeared first in a charming rendition of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major (K. 364/320d), with a virtuoso cadenza, then in the extremely difficult Frank work, and finally in Gabriel Faure’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor (Op. 15).

The Fauré, while not exactly a lollipop, is a rich late-Romantic piece with delicious twilight harmonies and soothing melodies. The slow movement is said to depict an unhappy broken engagement to the daughter of famous singer-composer Pauline Viardot.

The official biography says no to the story, but the evidence is there for anyone with an ear to hear. (Some musicologist must have checked references to Viardot’s scores in the quartet.) In fact, the sweet cheat appears as a spirit in the Allegro Molto, like a fountain of light. Unfortunately Fauré doesn’t know what to do with her and cobbles together an ending with the piano, superbly played by Elinor Freer, as the lone hero.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

A Wild and Crazy Night at the Bowdoin International Music Festival

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Monday Showcase
Studzinski Hall
July 11
by Christopher Hyde
The Bowdoin International Music Festival (BIMF) is to be commended for bringing some of he world’s finest string quartets to the Monday Showcase concerts at Studzinsky Hall. It is not very professional, however, to omit program notes for such concerts, as was the case on July 11.
As far as I can determine. and I searched he website and program exhaustively, there were no printed nor internet notes available. Such notes are a lifeline for the average music lover, and should never be omitted in hopes that concert-goers will look up the works on the internet before attending.
The Haydn Quartet No. 63 in B flat major, Op. 76, No. 4, is nicknamed “Sunrise,” due to the rising theme over sustained chords that begins the first movement. Something for the audience to listen for.
Knowing how late the work is in Haydn’s opus would prepare the listener for its dense texture, thorough composition and almost contemporary feel. It is also a bit academic for my tastes, but the Ariel gave it everything they had, making it sound better than it is.
It might help to know that Bartok’s first string quartet, Sz 40, resulted from an unhappy love affair with a violinist. And what is that bullfrog ostinato plucked on the cello strings all about?
“Bartók’s finale has several recurring motifs, the most important being an eighth-note ostinato, heralding a similar episode in the celebrated Allegro barbaro for piano solo (1911) and which in some form recurs in each of the composer’s subsequent quartets, and – climactically – a quotation of the Hungarian folksong “Fly, Peacock, Fly” (the subject also of Kodály’s later “Peacock” Variations). The song’s theme is the liberation of the spirit: a program which, it may not be fanciful to suggest, applies as well to this entire, liberating work.” (note by critic Halsey Stevens.)
Even without that synopsis, one could revel in the intricate counterpoint of the first movement, which rivals Bach in its complexity and inventiveness. The Ariel took that very seriously, but lightened up in later sections, especially those in which Bartok imitates Debussy.
They completely let their hair down, with pianist Elinor Freer, in a delightful rendition of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57. It has a wonderful fugue, straight out of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano, after Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier.” The Scherzo, however, pushes the limits of classical music in its rollicking craziness, complete with a tonic section that sounds like Liszt on a bad day.
It won the Stalin Prize in 1941 and has been popular since its introduction.
Freer is a natural with Shostakovich. I’d like to compare her rendition of the preludes and fugues to that of jazz pianist Keith Jarrett.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and pianist who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

A Musical Farewell

Portland Bach Festival
Episcopal Church of St. Mary, Falmouth
June 26, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Bach Festival closed on a high note Friday, at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary in Falmouth, with stunning performances of three major works and a cameo appearance by Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, who happens to have studied at Juilliard, majoring in drama. The Mayor emphasized the importance of the arts, especially classical music, in creating a vibrant city.

The concert included a world premiere of Bach’s Concerto for Three Violins BWV 1064R, reconstructed by Sebastian Gottschick. His wife, violinist Ariadne Daskalakis, was one of the soloists in Friday’s performance.

I am familiar with the version for harpsichords, apparently transcribed by Bach from a now lost three-violin concerto. It has virtuoso parts for each of the solo instruments and for the concertino as a whole, and was apparently written as a showpiece for Bach and two of his sons.

The violin version, artfully performed by Daskalakis, Renée Jolles, and Yibin Li, with the Festival Orchestra, works even better than the keyboard arrangement. Each violin (and its player) has a distinctive sound and style, making it easier to separate the voices and appreciate their combinations.

Either version is amazing when performed well, and Friday’s performance was as good as it gets. I must confess that as a youngster I agreed with Berlioz, that most of Bach was boring. I now share the opinion of festival founder Lewis Kaplan, that Bach is simply the greatest composer in the Western Classical Music pantheon. I was misled by somber, academic performances, and in any music, performance is (just about) everything.

The myriad cantatas are a case in point. The program began with Cantata No. 196, “Der Herr denket an uns.” written to be performed at a betrothal. As sung by Sarah Bailey, soprano, Jonathan Woody, bass-baritone, and Jason McStoots, tenor, with the festival orchestra and the Oratorio Chorale under Emily Isaacson, it was enough to make one want to go to church every Sunday in the year. Pure joy.

Its high point was an unusual duet for tenor and bass, which repeats the phrase “more and more” from “May the Lord bless you more and more, you and your children.” eleven times. Bach had 20 children, 10 of whom survived into adulthood.

The evening concluded with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, BWV 1050, with Jolles, violin, Emi Ferguson, flute, and Arthur Haas, harpsichord, with the Festival Orchestra.

I used to like the piano version, as played by Glenn Gould, since the keyboard part stood out, but the harpsichord, under Hass’ touch, wins the contest. unifying the structure and spinning out the intricate solo like a string of understated pearls. The combination of flute and violin, contrasting with the tone of Rob Regier’s harpsichord, was ravishing.

After the final note, and a long standing ovation, the audience didn’t want to go home. Kaplan and Isaacson plan to do it again in 2017. Better get your tickets now.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

(Note: I was receiving so much spam that I had to cut off the comment section of my web site. I would like to hear your thoughts and am working on a way to include legitimate comments.)